Before Honor Among Thieves: Dungeons & Dragons’ History Beyond the Game

Carolyn Page

Today, no one can deny that Dungeons & Dragons is a cultural juggernaut. Since the game manual’s first publication in 1974, the franchise has steadily picked up steam and amassed a passionate player base. The continued growth of the world’s most popular role-playing game is due in no small part to the non-tabletop products created around the IP.

For hardcore fans of the game, the stories found in the extended universe of books, movies, and more are welcome expansions of the lore and serve as a great in-road for newcomers. But even the most experienced DM and hardiest dungeon delver may have a hard time keeping track of it all. So, we’ve taken a page out of Xanathar’s guidebook and compiled this handy overview of some of the notable D&D adaptations so far, as a new movie version, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, arrives in theaters.

The Books

The first D&D novel was Quag Keep, written by Andre Norton and set in the realm of Greyhawk. After Quag Keep’s publication in 1978, the franchise began to crank out a steady stream of short stories, novellas, young adult and early reader books, and novels. Today, fans can find enough D&D books to fill a bag of holding. While there’s a library’s worth of D&D reading to be had, a few series and authors have risen to become not only famed within the community, but heroes of the larger fantasy genre.

Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis became a well known writing duo for their creation of the bestselling Dragonlance series. 1984 saw their first novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, released alongside the Dragons of Despair module (authored by Hickman) for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The books, and the Dragonlance setting, were hits. The pair, who began collaborating at TSR publishing in the early 80’s, never stopped working together. They continue to write about Dragonlance’s fictional world of Krynn and have become a defining voice in modern fantasy.

R.A. Salvatore is perhaps the most well known author of Dungeons & Dragons fiction, due to his ultra popular series chronicling the life and times of the dark elf cultist-turned-hero Drizzt Do’Urden. His first novel, The Crystal Shard, debuted in 1988 and introduced the world to Drizzt. Since that first fateful publication, he’s written over 50 novels. Crafting stories that feature D&D IP and the world’s most famous Drow, Salvatore writes fantasy stories that satisfy fans, as well as capture the hearts and minds of folks who wouldn’t know an Oliphaunt from an Owlbear. Thanks to Salvatore’s prolific writings, Drizzt is undoubtedly one of the game’s most recognizable heroes. Not bad for a character whose swords are named Icingdeath and Twinkle.

The Comics 

If you’re aching to immerse yourself in D&D lore, but reading dozens of paperbacks doesn’t appeal to you, good news! There’s probably a comic covering the story you’re looking for. In 1987, after the success of the Dragonlance books, the series was published as a graphic novel. At that time, the game and comics were published by the same house; TSR, Inc., a company started by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. The history of the company is a messy and tumultuous one, and TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. They were bought by Hasbro in 1999. There’s always a bigger fish.

During that time, many comic publishing companies entered into licensing arrangements for the IP, primarily DC Comics. DC even published a Dragonlance comic, which ran for 34 issues from 1988-1991 and expanded upon the world and lore of Dragonlance. Since 2010, the comics have been published by IDW Publishing. Ranging from the bustling streets of Baldur’s Gate, to the war-torn plains of Eberron, to wild crossovers like Rick & Morty, there’s a D&D comic for every kind of fan. Check them out for yourself and who knows, maybe you’ll find some inspiration for your next PC.

The Animated Series

In 1983, Dungeons & Dragons got its first taste of the screen with a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s a mish mash of over-the-top action and cartoon logic you’ll only find in an 80’s fever dream. A group of kids hop on a Dungeons & Dragons theme park ride, get transported to an unnamed D&D world, immediately get attacked by Tiamat, and then the children are given weapons by an ancient and powerful wizard. And that’s only the first 30 seconds of the show. The barbarian is 9 years old. The oldest member of the group is 15. Wild stuff.

The animated series ran for 3 seasons and totals 27 episodes. Like so many wacky and beloved cartoons of yore, its passionate fanbase was left abruptly hanging with no conclusion to the series after the show was cancelled. There’s been a resurgence of love and pop culture lifespan for the show in recent years however. In 2019, a Brazilian car company used the characters to fantastic effect in an epic live action commercial. And Hasbro recently released action figures from the show, each with an exclusive D&D die, due to the IP’s continued popularity. But nothing beats when, in 2020, a fan-made finale was put up online. It was based off of the actual unproduced script for the last episode and included footage from existing episodes; fans rejoiced. Turns out, no one makes better D&D content than the fans…

Fans like Matt Mercer and the folks at Critical Role, who created the D&D inspired Legend of Vox Machina cartoon.  

The Video Games

The amount of Dungeons & Dragons video games would make a gamer weep at the volume of titles in their Steam library. The first video game relating to the franchise was 1981’s Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game. Early D&D video games largely attempted to translate the rules as they were into a playable, pixelated adventure. But as the IP and setting began to capture the imagination of developers the world over, it served as a very successful inspiration point for video games spanning pretty much every genre. There’s the flight simulators like DragonStrike, clicker games like Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realm, RTS games, Hack and Slash, platformers, even a free to play MMO game, Neverwinter.

The road to Greyhawk is littered with frustrating and fun D&D games, but the most well known and beloved series is Baldur’s Gate. The first game premiered in 1998 and, just like Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game, it strove to encapsulate the mechanics and storytelling of a table top game of D&D. The series picked up even more steam with the iconic RPG Baldur’s Gate 2 and continues on with Baldur’s Gate 3. The games are sprawling, epic high fantasy adventures set in and around one of the largest D&D cities, Baldur’s gate. Either solo or with a co-op group, players control a party of adventurers who explore the world, wield classic spells, and take down iconic monsters, all while forging their own paths. Many fans consider the Baldur’s Gate Series the closest a video game has come to truly capturing the full D&D experience.

The Movies

The year was 2000. The bad guy was Jeremy Irons. The movie was Dungeons & Dragons. Fans were crushed when the first ever D&D film was a widely panned, campy, silly flop of a movie. Roger Ebert’s scathing review included gems like: “The plot does not defy description, but it discourages it,” and says half the movie looked like “everyone is standing around in the wooded area behind Sam’s Club on the interstate.” All hail the savage king. Critics hated it, fans were horribly disappointed, and the movie’s IMDB page includes this amongst its trivia: When asked why he did this film, Jeremy Irons replied, “Are you kidding? I’d just bought a castle, I had to pay for it somehow!”

Surely someone else had a castle to pay for, because in 2005, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God was released directly to TV on Syfy, back when it was still called Sci Fi. It was a standalone sequel set 100 years after the first film, with Bruce Payne as the only returning actor from the first movie, reprising his role as the villainous Damodar (Jeremy Irons’ henchman in the previous D&D movie). Unsurprisingly, critics and fans didn’t love this one either — though Payne has gotten some appreciation for what has become something of a cult classic role — but it must have eked out a profit because a third movie went straight to DVD in 2012 and bafflingly adopted a numbered convention in its title, Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness. Some fans loved seeing their favorite D&D artifacts on film, but most viewers, like those who gaze upon the cursed book, just wanted it to end.

D&D has now gotten another shot at big screen glory with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and fans are hopeful, as early word of mouth is quite positive. An extensive press lead-up to the release, star power from Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Pine, and Regé-Jean Page, and heavy marketing to the growing D&D fanbase has communicated the decidedly comedic and explosively epic take the film brings to the franchise of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens March 31.

Carolyn Page
Carolyn is a writer, actor, and professional nerd in Los Angeles. You can find her performing on Dropout, streaming on Twitch @jacuzzitubbs, and IRL fawning over her Magic: The Gathering collection.